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Anti-Gay Church Group A No-Show, But Waterloo Rally Goes On

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- A group of activists and University of Northern Iowa students came together Monday to protest an anti-gay group's message.

The fact that no one showed up deliver that message didn't deter hundreds from attending anyway.

More than 300 people assembled on the UNI campus near the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. The rally was in response to a scheduled demonstration by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. The group, based in Topeka, Kan., is known for picketing soldiers' funerals, defacing American flags and holding rallies espousing hate toward gays. The group's website listed a scheduled rally for 4:15 p.m. Monday at UNI before a screening of "The Laramie Project" at the performing arts center. The film is about a Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming man who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay.

Sara Richardson, a UNI senior and member of the UNI Proud, a group that advocates gay rights and tolerance, said Proud members didn't need Westboro members to be present to send a message.

"It's a good way to unify against their message and say we are a loving and affirmative community and we will not support your message," she said.

UNI public safety cordoned an area on the east side of Campus Street across from the performing arts center for the Westboro demonstrators. The area remained empty as the crowd across the street cheered and held signs as cars drove by.

Dave Zarifis, UNI director of public safety, said Westboro has called or faxed ahead to local police at the site of other protests to let them know they are coming.

"They're as concerned for their safety as anyone else," Zarifis said.

As of Monday, neither UNI nor Cedar Falls police had been contacted by the church.

Although the group was a no-show, some members of the crowd acknowledged that a counter demonstration also gave Westboro attention.

"I do know that, by counter protesting, we're feeding into them," said Rose Daugherty and UNI sophomore. "But I'm too passionate about the cause to ignore them."

Richardson said the event was as much about showing people what kind of campus UNI is than directly responding to another group's message.

"I think we're an inclusive and accepting campus and community and that's what people will see here," she said.

Dozens of signs people carried at the event echoed Richardson's comments. Others had more bizarre messages which has become a common sight at demonstrations countering Westboro picket events. One sign expressed disappointment that there weren't doughnuts at the event. Another stated that "dogs hate cats," which is a play off the often-used Westboro Baptist slogan "god hates fags."

"I like the nonsensical signs," said UNI senior Melanie Pickard. "Ours are complete nonsense, (Westboro Baptists's) are complete nonsense."

UNI Proud members said they had initially hoped for 200 people to attend the rally and were pleased with the turnout. Westboro Baptist has another event listed to picket a Thursday campus visit by Matthew Shepard's mother and gay rights advocate Judy Shepard. Richardson expects a similar-size crowd for that event.

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